WASHINGTON ― Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) did not communicate an offer for dialogue from President Donald Trump to Syrian strongman Bashar Assad during her trip to Syria in January, she told The Huffington Post on Monday.
Gabbard’s controversial visit with Assad has gained renewed attention after the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which is considered close to the Syrian leader, ran a story allegedly featuring details of the meeting.
The report quoted Gabbard as telling Assad, “This is a question to you coming from President Trump which he asked me to convey to you. So let me repeat the question: If President Trump contacted you, would you answer the call?” according to a translation by Brown University professor Elias Muhanna.
Asked by HuffPost if the Al-Akhbar report was accurate, Gabbard emailed, “No.”
Emily Latimer, a spokeswoman for Gabbard, elaborated later in an email.
“The exchange described in this story never happened,” Latimer wrote. “There was no message or question from Trump because as the congresswoman has previously stated, the Trump Administration was not aware or involved in her trip in any way, and she did not relay any communications from the Trump administration. The claims in this article suggesting otherwise are false.”
Gabbard met with Trump soon after his election, becoming the first congressional Democrat to do so. Like Trump, she has rejected intervention abroad, advocated slowing down the process of accepting refugees and accepted the term “Islamic extremism.”
Some in Trump’s movement, like White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, believe that successfully courting Gabbard is a way to unite their faction of the Republican Party with more left-wing Democrats. Gabbard was a loud supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and she is among a group of frustrated Democrats who believe the party establishment is wrong on trade, foreign affairs and other issues.
In Gabbard’s view, the conflict in Syria and the rise of groups like the self-described Islamic State are products of U.S. regime change efforts rather than organic resistance to Assad’s repressive rule and Assad’s own policies. She has supported Russia’s intervention to shore up Assad and has opposed congressional criticism of his regime.
“If Assad is removed and overthrown, ISIS, al Qaeda, al Nusra [now Jabhat Fateh al Sham], these Islamic extremist groups will walk straight in and take over all of Syria ... they will be even stronger,” Gabbard told CNN in 2015.
Trump has made similar arguments, saying he sees Assad, Russia and Iran as viable partners for the U.S. in the fight against ISIS. The Syrian regime has praised Trump and indicated that it is open to cooperation.
After news of her trip to Syria broke, Gabbard faced heavy criticism and questions about who funded her visit. The Atlantic revealed that two Ohio businessmen allegedly close to Assad and a pro-Assad, anti-Semitic party in Syria funded the trip. Gabbard eventually said she would pay for the visit out of her own pocket.
Since the latest session of Congress began in January, Gabbard has been promoting a piece of legislation called the “Stop Arming Terrorists Act.” The bill suggests the U.S. government is violating American laws by supporting anti-Assad rebels who work with ISIS and al Qaeda. It’s since attracted bipartisan support: House Democrats Peter Welch (Vt.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.) are co-sponsors, as are Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), Thomas Garrett (R-Va.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.). Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced the partner bill in the Senate.
Through a spokesman, Garrett told HuffPost he stands by Gabbard’s bill. “In Syria, no viable and less threatening partner for peace exists to replace a deposed Assad,” he wrote in a January piece defending her trip. The lawmaker said he was not aware of any coordination between the Trump administration and supporters of Gabbard’s bill.
No other co-sponsor immediately responded to requests for comment on the new report about Gabbard.
Some Syrian rebel groups that received U.S. arms or training have turned to tactical alignments with the al Qaeda affiliate there as Assad has gained ground and Washington has restricted their actions, demanding they focus on fighting ISIS even when Assad poses the more immediate danger to their communities.
The CIA and Pentagon have reduced American assistance to the rebels accordingly ― but some units continue to receive support from the U.S. and partner countries, including Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Contrary to claims by Gabbard and the Assad regime itself, Washington has long avoided directly challenging Assad’s rule ― under President Barack Obama, ISIS was constantly cited as the top priority, frustrating Syrians who disliked both the regime and the terror group. Officials say the covert element of U.S. involvement is intended to weaken Assad so he will cut a deal with the opposition to end the war, not to violently remove his government.
Many powerful U.S. figures, notably in Congress, continue to note the regime’s abuses and say it has no future.
Still, Assad has benefited from the growing perception that the world faces a choice between him and militant Islamists in Syria. Last week, the Trump administration appeared to soften on Assad’s future, and some on the left echo Gabbard’s rhetoric.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.